Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Time is Now: Revisiting The Women’s Convention in the Context of an Anthology about Feminist Art

“Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” ~ Paul Robeson

In Feminism and Art History Now: Radical Critiques of Theory and Practice (I.B. Tauris, 2017), edited by Victoria Horne and Lara Perry, one of the points of discussion in a conversation between Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry is the opting out of feminism by female artists. Some artists will concede to being a feminist but will not take on the label of feminist artist, even when their subject matter is women. Some of them are closet feminists, Dimitrakaki’s term for those who steer clear of politics in art to protect their professional status. Whatever the motivations, opting out is a tendency that has been on my mind since I wrote a text for a forthcoming publication* about deceased Canadian painter, Eleanor Mackey, who eschewed the ‘f word’ despite clearly articulating her concern for women’s rights and despite being active in left-wing politics generally. I focussed on her life during the Second Wave of feminism, and over half a century later, I find myself wondering if she would take a different approach were she alive today. I dedicate this post to her.

Attention is commanded by the cover design of Feminism and Art History Now. Against a background of faint brushstrokes, the whole title appears in gray letters except the word ‘now,’ which is emphasized by red type. Conveying a sense of urgency, it seemed suitable reading for the road trip back from the inaugural Women’s Convention (Oct. 27-29) in Detroit, Michigan. The convention, which was hosted by the Women’s March, was a call to action with the theme, Reclaiming our Time. Rather than summarize each of the essays as I set out to do initially, I will tie them back to the convention and by extension, the problems beyond the gallery system. The reason is that blogging about feminist art without acknowledging pressing issues for women feels like more than a luxury; it feels like a version of opting out.

Part I. Writing | Speaking | Storytelling

In “An Unfinished Revolution in Art Historiography, or How to Write a Feminist Art History,” Victoria Horne and Amy Tobin write of the importance of coming together in British feminist art history. The collective model (think consciousness raising sessions) has provided a safe place to unpack ideas outside of mainstream institutions. The problem is that early iterations focussed on gender-based oppression at the expense of other concerns like oppression based on race and class. This essay prompted me to remember the opening and closing remarks of the convention. A collective spirit was fostered from its onset, when activist Rosa Clemente asked audience members to stand (literally) with those who had loved ones in Puerto Rico, still in a state of devastation after Hurricane Maria; the projection of the crowd, numbering in the thousands, showed strangers placing their hands on the shoulders of one such woman. In the closing remarks, national co-chair for the Women’s March, Tamika Mallory observed that she had not necessarily found feminist gatherings to feel safe in the past and she thanked women of color for attending the convention. She revealed that she felt very conflicted by the disproportionate representation of women of color in the march in the days leading up to the largest known single-day protest in American history. Mallory cautions against splintering off within the movement and reminded the audience that collectively, “we are able to pull together our resources.”

In “I Want a Dyke for President: Sounding out Zoe Leonard’s Manifesto for Art History’s Feminist Futures,” Laura Guy analyses artist Zoe Leonard’s imploring speech for more diversified leadership in the UK. Because Leonard lists attributes associated with lack of privilege, I thought of an eye-opening exercise in the convention in which audience members called out all the ways they were ‘have nots,’ followed by all the ways they were ‘haves.’ For example, access to health insurance was identified by conference participants, and it was also identified by Leonard. Although Leonard has never identified the text as a manifesto, Guy notes that it has a manifesto-like quality because it projects into the future based on current circumstances. Reading this, my mind flashed back to a speech-writing workshop I attended at the convention. One woman’s contribution was, “I want to live in a world where when I say I’m dating someone new, the first thing people ask isn’t, ‘Who is he?’” This “politics of futurity” as Guy puts it, became contagious, appearing in other sample speeches. Leonard sees the text as a template to be co-opted, and frankly, I’m surprised that there wasn’t a pop-up reenactment at the convention.

“Our Stories are Our Life Blood: Indigenous Feminist Memory and Storytelling as Strategy for Social Change,” is written by artist, Cherry Smiley, who is from the Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) and Diné (Navajo) Nations. Because one of the first works she describes is about the Indian Act in Canada, I recalled the opening prayer at the convention. This Canadian prayer-song about missing and murdered aboriginal women was led by Indigenous women from various tribes and nations (Sarah Eagle Heart, who is Lakota from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; Anathea Chino from Ana Pueblo, New Mexico; Gina Jackson, Western Shoshone, Te-Moak band, Nevada; Jennifer Fairbanks, Piikani and Anishinaabe from Montana; and Ali Young, who is Navajo). As the audience sung along, initially I thought of an Indigenous student of mine whose sister was almost abducted in Canada, and then I thought of the late Annie Pootoogook, whose suspicious death in September 2016 is still under investigation. Smiley relates Indigenous storytelling to Second Wave consciousness-raising. She finds that storytelling allows her to imagine a world free of systemic oppression. There is power in remembering, Smiley says, in feeling the strength bestowed by one’s ancestors and in counteracting forced identities with one’s own constructed identity. As Carla Storry Read, Principal & Executive Coach at Reed & Associates, stated at the convention, “Own your own narrative.”

Part II. Visibility | Intervention | Refusal

In “Making Visible Lee Krasner’s Occupation: Feminist Art Historiography and the Pollock-Krasner Studio,” Andrew Hardman considers the reinscribing of gender norms at the historic site of the house and barn studio in Long Island once shared by Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner. Hardman observes that Krasner’s domestic responsibilities and/or proclivities compete with her artistic accomplishments through the emphasis of certain spaces and artifacts over others. The fact that I came away their gift shop with a spider plant descendent of Krasner’s own spider plant supports this perspective. Although Krasner doesn’t make me think of anything in particular at the convention, the fact that the author is one of two male contributors to the publication made me think of the dearth of men at the convention. Only one man, Abdul El-Sayed—who is running for Governor of Detroit—was slated as a speaker. Actually, Bernie Sanders was also scheduled but he withdrew due to a scheduling conflict and some surmise, due to controversy. (This is an oversimplification, but the controversy would be akin to women being offended that I have begun this post with a quotation from a man). In the audience, there was a smattering of men, which led to some noteworthy interactions. For example, when people divided into caucuses based on state, a man came right out and asked if men were welcome. The answer was affirmative.

Giovanna Zapperi’s “Challenging Feminist Art History: Carla Lonzi’s Divergent Paths” examines an Italian art critic and later feminist who was on the fringes of both categories. Her interest was in inserting the self in feminist writing. In interviewing artists for her 1969 publication, Autoritratto, she probed not just their opinions about the art world, but also their views on politics. Additionally, she included personal photos of interviewees and she wrote about details of their personal lives. This made me think of one of my favorite breakout sessions, Speechwriting the Resistance. Professional speechwriters Kate Childs Graham and Clare Doody walked the audience through how to structure a personal story to use in a speech, by monitoring qualities like humility and brevity. With a tag team approach that maintained momentum, they explained that “statistics stick in your head but stories stick in your heart.”

I now return briefly to Dimitrakaki and Perry since their dialogue completes Part II. In the dialogue entitled, “This Moment: A Dialogue on Particpation, Refusual and History Making,” Perry suggests seeing reluctant feminists as allies and striving for empathy rather than feeling distressed about their choices. This recommendation caused me to think of another favorite breakout session, Becoming an Effective Ally: An Interactive Workshop, facilitated by Whitney Parnell, CEO of the nonpartisan organization, Service Never Sleeps. She promoted allyship as a lifestyle, whether it’s navigating uncomfortable discussions at a family dinner or staging an intervention on public transit to shut down sexual harassment. She gave tangible advice, much of it involving empathy, for connecting with those who have opted out via a neutral stance; those whose opinions are not in alignment with your own but are not completely opposite (what Sally Kohn called “the moveable middle” in another excellent session); and those whose opinions are oppositional to your own.

Part III. Spatiality | Occupation | Home

Elle Krasny’s “The Salon Model: The Conversational Complex” looks at how curated conversations developed alongside exhibitions in modern Berlin and Vienna. In bourgeois homes, salons were frequented by both genders, but they were facilitated by women. They also became a creative outlet for women. She argues that the idea of conversation as an art form was quashed by men because it depended on multiple voices and therefore conflicted with the concept of individual genius. This made me think of the plurality of voices at the convention, not just among the speakers, but among the audience. I was surprised by the number of facilitators who paused their presentations to ask participants to communicate with the person beside them. In the first breakout session I attended, the hierarchy normally associated with conferences was obliterated in a touching moment of spontaneity. A single facilitator, Cathy McNally, had several empty chairs beside her onstage, which would have accommodated a traditional panel. When the room became packed, rather than turn people away, she invited several of them to take a seat onstage. Even with her back turned to them, as she was standing in front, she gave them the opportunity to speak when she offered up the mic to the audience in the final stage of what teachers call ‘think, pair, share.’

Hannah Hamblin’s “Los Angeles, 1972/ Glasgow, 1990: A Report on Castlemilk Womanhouse” examines installations about women’s relationship to the home and complementary workshops for women and children, both held in a tenement building. Castlemilk Womanhouse was a project conducted by Women in Profile, a feminist arts group, as an homage to Womanhouse, a student installation in a California mansion spearheaded by Judy Chicago. The Second Wave feminist artist was unimpressed and seemed to regard the Glasgow Womanhouse as an act of appropriation that diminished authorship. However, as Hamblin shows, the artists did not make a derivative work. Plus, they were able to take Womanhouse to a new level by working more collectively and avoiding the top-down model that Chicago had used, and by broadening their concept of feminism to account for class-based oppression and not just gender-based oppression. This made me think of the closing plenary of the convention, when National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Executive Director Donnell R. White said of the importance of intersectional feminism to different demographic groups, “You can’t extract one from the other.”

Kristen Lloyd’s “If You Lived Here...: A Case Study on Social Reproduction in Feminist Art History” is about Martha Rosler’s 1989 exhibitions and associated programming at the Dia Art Foundation’s Manhattan gallery. In this commentary on gentrification and homelessness, Rosler refrained from sugarcoating the situation; one wall quotes the mayor saying people should move if they can’t afford to live there. Because Rosler collaborated with so many individuals and organizations in an activist manner, If You Lived Here... defied categorization. Lloyd notes that as a result, it has been written out of art history—including feminist art history—until recently. This essay made me think of Detroit, with its swaths of uninhabitable housing, as the site for the convention. In the opening remarks, Michigan Women’s March Michigan president and founder, Phoebe Hobbs, commented, “Detroit defies narratives. Detroit is strong and fragile and complex and fierce....We’ve got every ugly flavor of injustice that America has to offer. But above all, we are fighters.”

Part IV. Temporality | Ghosts | Returns

In “Temporalities of the Feminaissance,” Francesco Ventrella bemoans the trope of “progress, loss and return” that is applied to female artists. The urge to portray women artists as being in the shadows before finally being discovered is expressed by academics, journalists, and curators alike. An example is the Venice Biennale (2005), entitled Always a Little Further. Based on its title alone, it privileged the new over the old and put a high premium on progress. In looking at Italian exhibitions, she finds context is often missing. Artists are presented in a void, without connections across space or time. I admit that I have found it challenging when lecturing to move past the default narrative of the underdog woman artist. My justification for perpetuating the narrative was that glossing over their erasure and focussing only on their accomplishments doesn’t push against systemic oppression. I began to reconsider this conundrum when I attended the breakout session, Build Her Up; Don’t Tear Her Down: Avoiding Standing in Our Own Way. Car designer and Michigan senate candidate, Mallory McMorrow, recalls her interactions as an award-winner with the press. Rather than being asked about her work, she was asked about her gender, and it hit me how dismissive this approach can be.

Kimberly Lamm’s “Gestures of Inclusion, Bodily Damage and the Hauntings of Exploitation in Global Feminisms (2007)” looks at the Brooklyn Museum’s blockbuster feminist show, curated by Linda Nochlin, who died recently, and Maura Reilly. In spite of an transnational focus, hauntingly, it reinforced colonial stereotypes. For example, the catalogue begins with a juxtaposition of two images: Tracey Rose’s Ciao Bella Ms Cast: Venus Baartman and Adrienne Marie-Louise Grandpierre-Deverzy’s The Studio of Abel de Pujol. The first is a photo of the black artist as a seemingly savage women naked and sexualized in the wilderness. The second is a painting of seemingly civilized white people (specifically, women in a painting class taught by a man, the artist’s husband) indicating “the presumptions of masculine superiority and feminine submission” (p. 238). The combination prompted me to recall one of the most memorable #metoo stories shared at the convention. Piper Carter, the first black female photographer for Vogue described being thrown down on a hotel bed containing her negatives by her boss and having to continue working with him. She shared that this was but one of many personal examples, and she expressed that there is a tradition of black women’s bodies being seen as there for the taking. “If you complain,” she says, “you are the one with a problem.” Thus, the convention’s goal of “centering the most marginalized voices,” as she articulated it, is critical.

In Catherine Grant’s “Learning and Playing: Re-enacting Feminist Histories,” she explores two works of art that exemplify Berthold Brecht’s concept of the ‘learning play,’ which involved activities preceding and succeeding the play itself. One is Killjoy Castle, by Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell, which was exhibited in Toronto, where they live. The campy lesbian funhouse was later referenced in the UK through a film and an installation of gravestones memorializing defunct feminist organizations made in collaboration with the curator. The other work is a tribute by Olivia Plender and Hester Reeve to the little known Emily Davidson Lodge, from c. 1940. In a zine, they note that they have reinstated the organization. Few details about the lodge are known. Grant outlines her play-by-play research quest to corroborate that the lodge commemorated a suffragette and that members attended to “the needs of the hour.” My takeaway, given that Grant identifies Brecht’s value in revealing change and the potential for change, is that feminism is constantly evolving and many initiatives will fade into memory, making it all the more important to document diligently. A photograph showing the tombstones from Mitchell and Logue memorialize, among other things, a march, which is my segue to say that I hope the details I’ve shared in this post will contribute in some way to the understanding of Reclaiming our Time organized by the Women’s March.

In the printed programme for the convention, a quotation from Paul Robeson caught my eye: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” When one is a gatekeeper (and in the library world that I inhabit, it’s a term that is applied frequently), there is a sense of obligation. There is simply no opting out.

*If you access my essay in the catalog, please note that there was supposed to be a statement noting that some personal details were removed at the request of the family. Unbeknownst to me, the publisher did not include this statement on the final version.

Images: top - Women's Convention. Photo by Heather Saunders; second from top: cover reproduced via fair use from

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